The two-lane Centerton Bridge across the Rancocas Creek in Burlington County is a utilitarian span that's long served as a handy shortcut and a welcome alternative to I-295.

Opened in 1903, the little, low-slung bridge also has offered scenic views of a verdant spot where the creek gently bends.

No wonder this antiquated and rather battered structure, which was abruptly closed to vehicular traffic and marked for demolition in 2015 due to safety concerns, has inspired deep affection and grand plans.

But while the prospect of a new span for pedestrians and bicyclists is being welcomed by many, me included, it's a disappointment for the most fervent champions of the old bridge.

They miss, and don't want to permanently lose, a convenient road that has long been a fixture of driving in this part of the world. And I can't say I blame them.

"We understand this bridge has some sentimental value," county spokesman Jason Tosches said. "But [fully] replacing it could cost at least $25 million. It's cost-prohibitive, and it doesn't make sense."

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The county is examining the feasibility of replacing the structure — it was rehabilitated in 1949, repaired in 1984, and temporarily closed during additional repairs in 2010 — with a $5.5 million crossing to connect walkers and cyclists to an emerging network of parks in nearby communities.

The network will eventually link with the regional Circuit Trail system and the East Coast Greenway, said Mary Pat Robbie, director of the county's Department of Resource Conservation.

Such a bridge "would be a pretty awesome thing" and would enhance public access to the Rancocas Pathways water trail he's long been promoting, said John Anderson, a devoted kayaker from Westampton.

"A pedestrian bridge will by itself become a destination," he said.

Lori Howard (left) and Anne Hamilton on the Centerton Bridge in August, three years after it was closed due to safety concerns. Howard started a “Rebuild the Centerton Bridge” campaign on Facebook.
TOM GRALISH
Lori Howard (left) and Anne Hamilton on the Centerton Bridge in August, three years after it was closed due to safety concerns. Howard started a “Rebuild the Centerton Bridge” campaign on Facebook.

But Lori Howard, Anne Hamilton, and others who have attended meetings, signed petitions, and pressured public officials would like to see the bridge rebuilt and reopened to vehicles and pedestrians alike.

"We want our bridge back," said Hamilton, a retired social worker who, like Howard, has roots in the Twin Hills neighborhood of Willingboro.

The bridge connects the township and adjacent Westampton on the north side of the creek with Mount Laurel to the south. It once carried 14,000 vehicles a day.

"We need that bridge," said Howard, a Mount Laurel resident.  "And the politicians need to listen to the people."

Her Rebuild the Centerton Bridge page on Facebook has attracted nearly 2,000 fans, including one who in a recent post likened a pedestrian-only crossing to a railroad bridge without tracks on either end. And a Change.org petition, now closed, drew 4,373 supporters.

Howard said the closure and demolition of the bridge are part of a longstanding "master plan" that was little known to the public and also made the fate of the crossing a foregone conclusion.

What with the slow-motion decline of the NJ Transit system, a 2015 report that found nearly 30 percent of the state's roads in poor condition and another showing one-third of New Jersey bridges in need of repair, "there should be more transparency and a better system to address infrastructure needs," she added.

Howard is certainly right about that. She's also correct that the removal of the bridge has been envisioned for decades — which is why the nearby stretch  of  I-295 crossing the Rancocas built in 1971 has a fourth lane in each direction.

But it seems to me the county has handled the Centerton Bridge issue well. A feasibility study completed earlier this year makes a strong case for a pedestrian/cycling bridge as the most practical, beneficial, and affordable option.

Robbie said a $70,000 Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission grant will enable the county to have preliminary engineering and other work completed sometime next year.

The pedestrian span will be a fine public amenity.

It's great to be able to walk across the Rancocas, despite the roar from nearby I-295. You see the creek and the surrounding landscape in a new light.

So when the pedestrian bridge opens, the county should thank such folks as Lori Howard and Anne Hamilton, who helped remind the rest of us that this spot along the Rancocas matters.